by simon baird

Friday, September 15, 2006

Funny story about dolphins

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.

Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.

Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.


Maybe you heard this rant of mine before but I am constantly perplexed by the apparent state of denial the exists in science about the intellect of animals. On TV documentaries I constantly hear things like "Humans: unique amongst earth's creatures as the only animal with 'conciousness', or an awareness of itself", or "the octopus used the socket set and wire cutters to dismantle the apparatus and gain access to the food pellets, purely instinctual behaviour that gives the false appearance of some kind of reasoning power", etc etc. I suppose it's rooted in religious ideas about the specialness of humans. And yes I know what anthropomorphising means, but come on! Read the story again. Dolphins are underwater hippies without opposable thumbs. Only smarter. Bah!


Mary said...

I completely agree with you Simon. Every time an animal exhibits a supposedly human-only characteristic, I giggle as people desperately search for something else to separate us from the other animals.

Remember when it was our use of tools that made us special? Then some damned monkeys/apes/eagles/etc trumped us.

So we clung to our use of language.... but apes and certain birds put a spanner in the works there.

damn you animals!! I want to feel special!!! :)

PiB said...

Pretty big brush with the phrase 'scientists' though. Some of the biggest proponents I've ever heard of from the 'humans are the only animals that think' are creationists and they are barely regarded as above pond water by much of the scientific community.

Most (if not all) mammals must raise their young and teach them how to do things. Young mammals who can't learn don't survive. The same is true of many (definitely not all) bird species. It's not all instinct, predators have to learn to hunt. Members of a social species have to learn social interactions. To deny this is ignoring the many and focusing on the exceptions.